Alberta researchers are taking part in a national long-term study aimed at answering the troubling question of how people develop cancer.

Researchers with the Tomorrow Project will track the health of volunteers over the next 50 years to see what kind of factors lead to the disease.

Researchers are looking for 50,000 Alberta volunteers by March 2012 who are between the ages of 35 and 69, and who have never been diagnosed with cancer. Researchers are seeking 300,000 people across the country.

The study is one of the largest and longest that has ever been undertaken in both Alberta and Canada, the province said.

So far, 8,000 Albertans have signed up, said Dr. Elizabeth McGregor, a Calgary-based epidemiologist in population health research and one of the co-investigators in the study.

"No single researcher could build a study this large with this complexity of data and richness of data and follow it over so many years," McGregor said at Friday's launch at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.

This year, 6,200 Albertans will die from cancer and 15,900 new cases will be reported, the province says.

Volunteers will fill out a survey about their lifestyle — things such as eating habits and occupation — and give researchers samples and measurements.

Will track volunteers health for 50 years

From there, researchers will track the health of those people for the next five decades through medical records and followup surveys.

Results will be reported as they are found, McGregor said.

In most cancer studies, researchers find people already with the disease and ask them to think back, sometimes decades, to how they lived before getting sick.

Researchers hope this new approach will give them a more accurate picture of what causes cancer.

"What we are trying to do is understand what causes cancer," Stephen Duckett, president and CEO of Alberta Health Services said. "If we understand what causes cancer we have a better chance at preventing it."